US Election season 2012 and the role of social media

The US 2012 elections are over, and as an outside (understand european) observer, I was once again fascinated about their process. Americans are passionate about politics and certain issues, which I can’t understand – like the problem about abortion rights, and how some republicans concentrate on small government but actively pursue to get into personal decisions of citizens – like gay marriage, abortions and even such a horrible redefinition of rape as some republicans are proposing. Not to mention how  flabbergasted I am by some people’s belief that there is no such thing as evolution, global warming, and science. And some of those people are actually sitting on the Science and Technology committee in US government.

Alas, this is not a post about US politics, but it is about the role social media and technology played in the 2012 Election process. In 2008 the Barack Obama’s election team used Web 2.0 technology in an unprecedented way – through online advertising, social media campaigns, getting support by engaging people online, as well as offline. It was amazing. In 2012 – during the campaign, I’ve focused on tracking what role social media was playing into the US political life and here are some interesting observations:

1. Memes – creating and watching memes online is not something new, but it reached high levels during the campaign with both presidential candidates being ridiculed for something they said or did. Even before the end of the first or second debates, there were various memes published online mocking the candidates.

Especially the comments about binders full of women, generated so much interest that reviews on Amazon about binders included some sort of mention about this zinger. The users exploded using it in various creative ways.

But candidates were not the only center of attention online, moderators were as well commented and ridiculed through memes, songs, accounts, etc. The culture of meme creation is not only embracing user creativity, but also is providing a more entertaining look at politics, which for me is some level of engagement in the process.

2. Facebook, Twitter, Google and Social Media as a whole – it has been said many times: people love to share, and sometimes over share tidbits about their life. But during the election 2012, the sharing of their beliefs, as well as the simple act of sharing a comment that they are voting or have already voted had an additional effect – it was essentially taking a civil position, as well as a way to call to action your followers/ friends to vote as well, even if it is implicitly defined.

But comments during the campaign were essential to measure the mood for the campaign, the success from debates, how people see the process, and what stirs people to vote. This year, social networks measured users participation levels by citing how many people share posts about politics, comment of voting, etc. Here are some statistics: 

– Facebook: During the election day Facebook Stories provided us live with statistics of the number of people who shared they voted. Even more interestingly was the availability of a voting histogram by hour and the statistics by age and gender demographic.

Of course there were concerns that people who actually took pictures and shared them online of the ballots during the time they vote is actually a criminal activity. And this is a subject that needs to be discussed – are the authorities going to go after all the people that posted the pictures, what about the people that reshared them? Would some day in the future authorities realize that maybe they should update the laws to include the new realities or maybe we will just turn a blind eye to those who shared and leave it at that?

– Twitter: According to Twitter, during Election Day 2012, Twitter received 21 million tweets, hitting a peak of 327,452 Tweets per minute (TPM). Not to mention that around 11:15PM @BarackObama has tweeted and proclaimed a victory even before he officially spoke, thus once again underscoring the importance of social media in the 2012 election season.

Even before that – during the debates, staggering amount of tweets were sent – during the town hall debate for example, 7.2 million Tweets were sent.

Not only that but Social networks accounts were created in response to some memorable moments as for example – Mitt Romney’s horse, his comment about binders full of women, which generated hundreds of thousand of users in the first several hours of their creation.

Another even more interesting news about Twitter is the rumor that got started on Twitter that Elizabeth Warren had won MA and was called as a win by NBC. It turned out that the tweet was not from NBC, which officially called for a Warren win 45 minutes after the initial tweet, but in that time interval official news channels were retweeting the tweet with the rumor.

As said in the article on Mashable – people retweeted it because it was beforehand retweeted by users they trust. And even though she actually won the race, this will be interesting future lesson and observation – what happens if you tweet and retweet if you have not double checked but simply because you trust one source? How much can we trust the people we follow – for sure can’t be done blindly. What happens if such a rumor is started with malicious intent. And more importantly – is it necessary or even appropriate for the “tweet zero” to be deleted once the mistake is recognized?

– Google+:  As reported by Mashable on election night, Obama’s team updated twitter, instagram and facebook, but it seems they forgot to update on Google+, where they have the smallest amount of followers. This is surprising since the democratic campaign has focused so much on social media with making Google Hangouts several months before election.

– Traditional Media: no one is saying that traditional media was not important during the election, but if you’ve watched the channels – there was a constant stream of Tweets broadcasted live, once again reaffirming the important role the microblogging platform is playing. Additionally, most of the news channels were using the channels thmselves to spread news, interact with viewers and watch when candidates announce defeat or win. As it turned out – Twitter was a great place to get news when it comes to elections – it is fast, usually reliable and allows change to be reflected in a matter of seconds.

– Avatars: I have to give it to the Obama’s campaign that set up a special site where you can create your own avatar that your are going to vote or have already done that. In the days before the election my twitter feed was essentially with avatars of people who had such avatars – from I will vote, to I voted, to tech for Obama, etc. Great way to engage with the electoral base and generate additional virality and political message.

3. Campaign websites and the call to action – after the first debate I went to Obama’s and website and was satisfied by the way they have drilled down on various issues, with sections for specific types of voters: women, latino, african-american, gay people, etc. In the specific section, more information was provided particular to the issues. This not only saved from over cluttering the website, but frustrating the possible voter with drowning her/him in information. And of course on the home page was the call to action: Vote and donate to the campaign. Pretty easy and straightforward process altogether.

In all honesty – similar was the situation in Mitt Romney’s site, although the drill down by supporters was way less – no gay section for example. And this was not surprising considering his views on many subjects.

Below here, you can see the social media channels both candidates campaign have listed on their respective websites. And Obama’s strategy was way more diverse, understanding that people use many channels to communicate, and therefore many more opportunities to call people to action.

4. Global Interest – we are no longer isolated islands and what happens in a country like USA brings international attention. During the 2012 US Elections, the world was also participating by sharing and posting comments on social networks and engaging about US elections by voting online for example.

Many people, just like me, were very interested about the rode that US will take in the next four years, because we realize that we are interconnected on many more levels than just the Internet. What happens in one country might bring ripples to many others and through social media now is easier than ever to communicate on global scale.

As a conclusion, I am happy I have witnessed an amazing elections in the US, I am happy the Democrats won, and I am looking forward to see whether we, as bulgarians, will embrace social media as well during the parliament elections next year and how exactly we will fare. So, did you watch the election, what are your thoughts on the matter of social media and elections?